What's the Real Question?
Updated: Feb 14
The polarized nature of our society today seems to make every choice a test. Are you for or against…? Do you support or not support…? Do you do this or that? I am regularly asked these types of questions about environmental issues and find them troubling. Let’s look at an example.
Do you use a plastic straw or not? I don’t know how this one got started, but I’ll assume the intent was good. Questioning the use of something as ubiquitous as a straw helps us see the extent to which single-use items are part of our daily lives. The question also raises awareness of the problems caused by plastics in the ocean. Awareness is the first step to doing something about it. Then, the question went viral and several things happened.
First, people became fixated on plastic. ALL single-use items are a problem. Disposable is another word for single-use. These are items put the planet’s resources are on a fast track to one of two options: landfill if discarded properly, and pollution if not. In the last half century, the U.S. has become a throwaway society, and it’s not just plastic. Keep track of all the single-use items you use in a week, and you may discover that straws are not at the top of the list. The top items may not even be plastic. Common household items that people throw away daily are paper towels, paper napkins, coffee filters, and cleaning wipes.
The fixation on plastic straws created a market for straws made of alternative materials. Like plastic straws, the alternative materials require resources from the planet, use energy, and create emissions. For paper straws, trees are harvested and hauled to paper mills, where energy and water are used to create paper. The paper is then shipped to the straw manufacturer, who then ships the straw to the retailer, where a person will buy and use it once. All these steps require fuel, and the straw, with all the resources that went into it, still goes to the landfill. Reusable metal straws also have production and transport chains that use energy and generate emissions. In addition, their source material is mined from the earth, meaning it’s not a renewable resource. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
In some groups of people, whether a person uses a plastic straw has become a point of judgment. Doing so marginalizes people who must use straws for medical reasons. This judgment also sets up a class system, based on who has the time and money to find, buy, and clean a reusable straw.
What may have started out as a good idea now hinders finding solutions to real problems. Marginalized and judged people are less likely to listen and be open to discussion of environmental issues. Other people think they can buy themselves into being “good” and green, and companies are happy to feed this idea and grow their profits. Obscured in all of this is the issue that makes a difference. As recently said in the comic strip Frazz, “what if we all just learned how to operate a cup?”
Environmental fads and litmus tests avoid a tough reality: we have to make significant changes in our personal life and in our economic systems, for the well-being of all who live in this world. The changes are not the same for everyone. They are contextual to our location and our lifestyle. Not all people use the planet’s resources in the same way, and different resources are more readily available in one location than another.
Let’s look at the plastic straw from a different perspective. The first question must be, “do I really need to use a straw for my well-being?” If the answer is yes, then use straws. When doing so, consider ways to minimize the environmental impact of the straw. For everyone else, the real question is, “why am I even in a situation where I’m being offered or want to use a straw?” The situation often comes with a lot of other single-use items, in addition to the straw. When we realize our situation is what needs to change, not the straw, the work of restoring well-being to the world can begin.
This is hard work, and it’s countercultural. Many faith traditions have scripture and teachings of personal sacrifice for the well-being of others and for a greater good. How might your faith tradition help you make tough choices on the journey to sustainable living?